Atlantic Worlds Gallery Opens At National Maritime Museum Greenwich

By Sara Wajid | 30 November 2007
a bust of man wearing epaulettes and a bicorn hat

Bust of Jean Jaccques Dessalines, a Creole slave (1758 - 1806) who joined the 1791 slave revolt in Saint Domingue and became the first head of state of the Republic of Haiti in 1804. He was assassinated in 1806 after declaring himself Emperor. Courtesy NMM

Untold London Editor Sara Wajid visits the National Maritime Museum in London, where a new gallery tells the story of transatlantic trade and navigation, and the dark commerce that fuelled it.

The National Maritime Museum opened the doors to Atlantic Worlds on November 30 2007. The stylish new permanent gallery marks the bicententenary of the abolition of the translatlantic slave trade but, unlike the London, Sugar Slavery permanent gallery at Museum in Docklands, slavery is not its sole focus.

Atlantic Worlds tells the story of the exploration and navigation of the whole Atlantic ocean. This exploration brought Europeans into contact with Africa and the Americas, setting in motion a world-changing process of conquest and exploitation, trade and cultural change.

a print showing ships in a bay with fires and explosions on the hillsides beyond

Destruction of the Boyne Estates by the rebel slaves in 1831. © NMM

The impressive range and quality of the 220 objects (many of which have never been on public display before) spanning 1600 – 1850 make this a must-see exhibition.

The historical and geographical scope of Atlantic Worlds is so vast it’s hard to believe the gallery replaces an even more thematically wide-reaching ‘Trade and Empire’ gallery, which held half as many objects.

India and the Pacific Ocean will now be dealt with in separate galleries to open in 2009, making room for this in-depth treatment of the movement of people, goods and ideas across the Atlantic Ocean.

Amongst the paintings, prints, drawing, decorative arts and ethnographic materials you will find a 19th century whaling harpoon gun, an 18th century guillotine and a rare depiction of a black pensioner in Greenwich in about 1800.

a small scale topographical map showing Ethiopia

(Above) Detail from a 1715 map of Africa showing European forts on the West Coast. Ethiopia is marked here as being 'wholly unknown to the Europeans'. © NMM

‘Enslavement’ is one of four themes covered, and some of the most engaging and unusual objects are here. The exhibition estimates that 3.4 million of the 12 million African people enslaved in the course of the translatlantic slave trade, were done so in ships of the British Empire.

Dr. John McAleer, one of the curators behind the gallery explains, “Of course, the horror of slavery isn’t glossed over but we also felt it was important to emphasise the ways that enslaved people fought against enslavement, both within and without the system. It is now believed that up to one out of ten slaveships experienced a rebellion.”

A wooden bust of Jean Jacques Dessalines bears testimony to the most famous rebellion in Haiti. Dessalines was a Creole slave, who joined the 1791 slave revolt in Saint Domingue and served with the Spanish before rising to prominence as a soldier and assumed command of the struggle against the French in Haiti.

He went on to become the first head of state of the republic of Haiti in 1804 but was assassinated in 1806 after declaring himself Emperor.

a photograph of four miniature bronze canons

Brass Akan goldweights in the shape of the weapons for which gold was often traded. © NMM

The resistance and agency of enslaved Africans is also demonstrated by images depicting the social and cultural life of enslaved Africans and Maroons in the Caribbean.

These are little-known in Britain but familiar in Caribbean households. Pointing out a drawing titled ‘Negroes Sunday market at Antigua’ published in 1806 McAleer explains that in some places 20 per cent of an islands’ income came from the slaves' own economy (farm produce grown on smallholdings).

‘Enslavement’ is contextualised by three other sections of the gallery: ‘War and Conflict’, ‘Exploration and Cultural Encounters’ and ‘Trade and Commerce’. The section on the bloody struggle between France and Britain for supremacy in the new territories is a useful reminder of how valuable the new markets were to Europeans.

a model of a ship with full sails

A ship model typical of the kinds of ships used to carry British emigrants to North America, 1840s. © NMM

Only two items in the whole gallery are borrowed from other museums. Given how rich the National Maritime Museums’ collection is, it makes sense that they have gone for a traditional ‘object-led’ gallery.

On the whole this approach works well but in a few places the curators have been led by the objects and it proves a little too polite. For instance a panel titled Migrations includes slavery as a sub-section. This accidental blurring of the line between forced and voluntary migration is uncomfortable.

Similarly, a folder of personal case histories on ‘Atlantic Migration’ has one chapter on ‘British Migration to North America and the Caribbean’ with detailed personal case histories and a mirror one on ‘Caribbean Migration to Britain’.

a painting showing an African man leaning on a rock with manacles around his wrist and arms

Unknown artist, Slave in Chains, about 1820s. © NMM

The Caribbean case studies are of the renowned black abolitionists, Wedderburn and Sancho. Organising the manual like this feels inappropriately neutral, retrospectively implying parity, as if the transatlantic slave trade was a kind of exchange programme.

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